As Delhi hosts its first international conference on sanitation, it is appropriate to remember the man responsible for much of the progress made by India — Rajiv Gandhi. When the young prime minister travelled from Bombay to Delhi by Rajdhani Express, for a change, he was shocked by the sight of people using railway tracks as their toilet, as the train neared Delhi. Suddenly, the 21st century seemed very far away. On getting to Delhi, his first demand was to inquire about the status of sanitation in the country, and upon discovering there was a vacuum, demand an all-new programme to address the issue.
The ministry of rural development hurriedly carved out a programme out of the existing resources of the Indira Awaas Yojana and other rural development schemes. The National Sanitation Programme was created in 1985, thanks to the efforts of Rajiv Gandhi who took a keen interest in water and sanitation issues for rural India. Now, nearly a quarter of a century later, sanitation coverage has inched ahead from a mere 3 per cent when it began, to a moderate 30 per cent now. Clearly, there is much progress to be made still, but for a country with a billion-plus people, it is no mean feat.
However, after the sanitation programme was launched in 1985, it was suspended after a couple a couple of years when it was found that the free toilets were not actually used by the target beneficiaries. It was easy to develop a water system that was immediately useful to the population as an essential need, but demand must be created for sanitation, which is a change in people’s way of life, and calls for prior education in hygiene. We learned the hard way that it is difficult to sell the concept of a closed toilet to a villager unless issues of dignity and health are introduced before the construction phase.
The journey is long, and a learning process but the Indian sanitation programme is now steered by a very committed minister, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh who coined the slogan ‘no toilet no ticket’. The SACOSAN conference recognizes the lessons and experiences from Medinipur, Lucknow, Gandhigram, Gujarat Safai Vidyalaya and above all, the unique Sulabh Sauchalaya. We learned that merely constructing toilets, even when they are free, will not change behaviour, that hygiene awareness must come first and that if mothers are made to realise that sanitation proects their children’s health, they will commit completely to the cause. We also learn that neglecting sanitation can be made a political issue. Worldwide, there has been a collective effort to place sanitation as a priority in many international organisations. After sanitation fell through the cracks at the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) resolution of the United Nation in 2000, it was finally achieved after strong lobbying from the WASH campaign, at the Sustainable Development Summit in 2002.
Although the primary goal is basic sanitation, it is high time that the issue was placed in broader perspective, factoring in the water crisis, climate change, and as a key low-cost, safe way to reduce child mortality and morbidity. We must examine water consumption and technology in urban areas, drainage and sewage design and encourage use of low water consuming units. If New York can introduce these low-water toilets, why can’t our metros do the same? With our growth rate and haphazard urbanisation, there is bound to be excessive water consumption and the discharge of unsafe waste, which has far-reaching disruptive effects. Sanitation, water and energy are closely interconnected in the fight against climate change.
It is heartening that the Prime Minister has taken the time to inaugurate the Delhi conference. Hopefully he will consider announcing an integrated water and sanitation mission for the country which will go beyond the periphery of various ministries, bring in the best minds and technologies and harness people’s participation for a cleaner, healthier India.
The writer has worked on water and sanitation issues for WHO, UNICEF and the Indian government